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A peer-reviewed journal that offers evidence-based clinical information and continuing education for dentists.

Special Smiles Program Empowers Special Olympians with Winning Smiles and Top-Notch Oral Healthcare

Robert Harris, known as “The Hulk,” has been a powerlifting icon at the Special Olympics Virginia for two decades, showcasing not only his athletic prowess but also the importance of healthcare for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Through the Special Smiles program, athletes like Harris receive crucial dental care, breaking down barriers to essential health services.

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Robert Harris, affectionately nicknamed “The Hulk,” has been a fixture at the Special Olympics Virginia for the past 20 years, where he has excelled in powerlifting and earned a spot at the 2022 USA Games, winning four silver medals. This year, at the Richmond event in early June, Harris competed in both powerlifting and bowling, reflecting his dedication and extensive training.

Harris’ journey in the Special Olympics extends beyond athletics. It encompasses a vital aspect of healthcare through the Special Smiles program, a division of the Special Olympics Healthy Athletes initiative. This program offers dental screenings and educates participants on maintaining good oral hygiene. It also aims to raise awareness about the importance of oral health and improve access to dental care for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), who often face significant barriers to adequate treatment.

In 2011, a collaboration between Special Smiles Virginia and the Virginia Dental Association Foundation’s Mission of Mercy (MOM) project marked a significant milestone. This partnership aimed to provide free comprehensive dental care to Special Olympics athletes like Harris, setting a precedent at the state level. This year, after winning gold in bowling, Harris visited the Special Olympics MOM project for a much-needed tooth extraction, highlighting the ongoing challenges individuals with IDD face in finding accessible dental care.

The need for accessible dental care is pressing. Studies show that individuals with disabilities often face economic challenges and limited access to dental services, especially as they transition from pediatric to adult care. Many private practices lack the necessary amenities and training to accommodate these patients. Events like Special Smiles and MOM provide a critical stopgap, offering treatment and raising awareness about the broader issue of health care accessibility.

The Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry is addressing this gap with the upcoming Roger Wood Special Care Dentistry Clinic, set to open in winter 2025. Established by alumnus Roger Wood, DDS, this clinic aims to improve access to care for special-needs patients and educate future dentists. Wood’s initiative underscores the need for continuous care from childhood through adulthood, ensuring that individuals with special needs receive the attention they deserve. Click here to read more.

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